In Jim Sheridan's "Brothers," it feels like the film's three young stars are playing house.
Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal have all previously played memorable teenage characters and each has maintained a youthfulness into their late 20s and 30s.
Here, they star in a suburban, domestic drama that extends all the way to Afghanistan. Maguire is Captain Sam Cahill, a decorated Marine and husband to his high school sweetheart, Grace (Portman), with whom he has two daughters. Gyllenhaal is Sam's brother, Tommy (Gyllenhaal), the black sheep of the family who, at the movie's start, is just getting out of prison.
When Sam ships out to Afghanistan, he's presumed dead after a fiery helicopter crash. Grace is heartbroken from the loss, but finds support in a maturing Tommy. He helps around the house, plays with the kids and begins to have feelings for Grace.
All the while, we know Sam is not dead and has been taken prisoner. Under threat of death, he's forced to commit an unspeakable sin, an incident that damages and haunts him when he returns to his previously idyllic family life.
The possibility that his brother and his wife have become romantically involved causes him to explode in jealousy.
"Brothers" is a remake of Susanne Bier's 2004 Danish film "Brodre," in which the three main characters were slightly older. But the youth of "Brothers" isn't a knock on the film. On the contrary, it makes it more realistic given the thousands of fresh-faced soldiers so often sent to war.
It's one of the few differences between Sheridan's remake and the original. It's a simple story and "Brodre" had an affecting, lyrical quality, a poetry lacking in Sheridan's sleeker, more sentimental film.
Staying almost scene-for-scene with the original, Sheridan ("My Left Foot," "In America") weaves the dual story lines — at home and in Afghanistan — building the tension for the inevitable clash between the separate worlds.
"Brothers" has aspirations for "Deer Hunter" territory — a dramatic examination of the cost blue-collar families pay for war. Where "Deer Hunter" was epic in its reach, "Brothers" feels as though it never really leaves the front yard.
When Sam returns home, he might as well be an alien. He's creepy and bug-eyed with post-traumatic mania, nearly unrecognizable to his family.
Gyllenhaal is perhaps too likable for his character. We believe his caring, responsible uncle, but not his recent history as a drunk convict.
By distilling the story of war down to a single family, "Brothers" makes an impossibly complex story of war understandable and human. But missed are opportunities to expand the film, such as with Sam and Tommy's father, an alcoholic veteran played by Sam Shepherd.
Portman is mostly left to bounce between Sam and Tommy. Constantly either longing for her husband or anxious for his well-being, she rings true as a military mother full of worry and caring.
In the end, "Brothers" hopes that healing can happen through confession and understanding. Ultimately, it's the need for the home front to know the pain of its sons and daughters fighting abroad.
It's a worthy lesson and the aspiration of "Brothers" is noble. But it can't preserve the intimacy of the original film, and the loosened characters slide into cliche.